Interfaith trip to the Holy Land revisited
Now that plans for the second Oklahoma Religions United Trip have been publicized and individuals are considering making the trip, it's interesting to get the perspectives of some of the people who took the inaugural trip in 2017.
Twenty-two Christians, Muslims and Jews from the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metro areas traveled together to Israel and the Palestinian Territories in January 2017.
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The eight-day trip included visits to some of the most sacred sites in the Holy Land.
The group recently met in Oklahoma City for a one-year anniversary of their life-changing trip.
Several of the group members said it them took several months to process all that they saw and learned during the interfaith trip.
"The distance from the precipitating event, the richer this is," the Rev. Courtney Richards, Connections pastor at Harvard Avenue Christian Church, said of the trip.
"There are moments where I say 'This was incredible!'"
In the year since the trip, group members said they were particularly intrigued when they saw some of the placed they had visited featured in news accounts about the Holy Land.
Some of those accounts highlighted the violence that erupted in July 2017 at the Dome of the Rock Islamic shrine and Al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem. After Palestinian gunmen shot two Israeli police officers in the Old City, Israeli leaders placed metal detectors at the entrance to the mosque, setting off protests and more violence. The site is also very important to Jews because it is the site of the First and Second Temples.
Also, in December 2017, tension mounted in the region when President Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
"My wife and I were watching one of the major news channels and they showed the hill where we were (during the 2017 trip) and I found myself thinking of the people at the top of the hill," said Bill Gordon, a member of the Catholic faith community who took part in the trip.
"I was thinking about the churches at the bottom of the hill and the Jews and Muslims in between. I found myself wondering had I met any of them had they given me food."
Several members of the group said they especially appreciated the dual-narrative aspect of the tour. The tour included an Israeli Jewish guide and a Jordanian Arab and the group visited places of importance to Jews, Christians and Muslims while also meeting and discussing the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian complex with people on different sides of the issues.
Rabbi Vered Harris, spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Israel, came up with the idea for the trip. At the recent one-year anniversary gathering, Harris said the trip served its purpose in many ways.
"I think that having the dual narrative experience demands that we know more because on a one-dimensional trip, I automatically take the narrative of my guide," she said. "(Dual narrative) It forces us outside just following what the newspaper headlines say. I think the experience challenges us to look deeper and go deeper than whatever the headline is."
Harris said the trip was not just about "going and seeing" but about the group members sharing what they saw and learned with people in their own faith communities and the community-at-large.
Over the year since the trip, some members of the group said they have been able to their perspectives about the visit to a variety of different audiences, including students at Oklahoma Baptist University, members of a United Methodist church in the west metro and members of a metro moderate Baptist church. Also, forums were held in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa that served as a platform for the group members to share their thoughts about the trip.
Imam Imad Enchassi, senior imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, said he thought the trip helped strengthen the already-strong bonds of interfaith friendship and understanding between him and Harris and Rabbi Abby Jacobson, spiritual leader of Emanuel Synagogue, who also took the trip.
He said when tensions heightened in the Holy Land once Trump made his announcement regarding Jerusalem, two of the first people he spoke to about the issue were Harris and Jacobson.
"I think the rabbis and I were the first one to communicate with each other and to learn from each other," Enchassi said, adding that they shared a sense of sadness about the turmoil that erupted in a place they all cared about.
Jacobson shared similar comments, noting that they could disagree over some aspects of the matter but still maintained their interfaith connection.
"There was so much warmth from that," she said.
Others who participated in the 2017 trip also shared their thoughts at the recent gathering at Jacobson's Oklahoma City home.
Michael Korenblit, a member of the Jewish faith community, said the trip has had a positive ripple effect.
"I think about all the ways we have educated people -- which means we have touched many people with this trip," he said.
Aliye Shime, a Muslim who is executive director of Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry, said people have expresses surprise that the group from different faiths tooks the trip together.
"They were shocked beyond belief that we traveled together and we got along," she said.
Shime said it was her first time visiting the Holy Land and although she had some reservation, she made sure that she went with an open heart and open mind.
She's so glad she did.
"It gave me a lot of hope -- and I've learned that everything is complicated."
Another member of the group, J.K. Alam, attended the gathering via Skype because he has moved out of state.
Alam said he will always remember the trip.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think about this trip. Everybody in my personal circle has heard about the trip," he said.
Alam said having that personal experience of seeing the Holy Land for himself has made him feel more invested in what is occurring there and has made him want to help change things for better in this special region of the world.
"The best thing you can do from here is to talk and stay in touch and relay the experience to people," he said.
Lori Blumenthal, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City, said she appreciated the dual-narrative aspect of the tour because she was able to see and meet people she might not have met any other way.
The 2017 trip seemed to have made a lasting impression on the entire group.